Nannies & Governesses in Crime Fiction

From Nurse Matilda to Nanny McPhee to Mary Poppins to Jane Eyre, the governess or nanny has proved to be a fascinating character in literature, and mystery fiction has it’s share of them.  Interestingly, both Nurse Matilda and Nanny McPhee where created by mystery writer Christianna Brand (1907-1988), beloved by mystery readers for her Inspector Cockrill novels.  Here are a few of my “nanny” favorites.

Patricia Wentworth’s sleuth, Miss Sliver, is a former governess, so the lions’ share of governesses come from her pen. While Miss Silver is now a comfortably employed inquiry agent, she retains some of her governessy characteristics and appearance, a great advantage when she aspires to invisibility within a household where a murder has taken place. Two of my favorites are Wicked Uncle (a.k.a. Spotlight, 1947) where penniless Dorinda Brown takes a job as governess to a spoilt little boy. It’s rare to have the governess be the main protagonist, and this is one of the few examples. The suspense is provided by Dorinda’s fear of her “wicked uncle” who turns out to be her new employer’s neighbor. He is so unpleasant he is of course murdered, but this is one of the most charming of Wentworth’s books. read more

Lauren Willig: The Summer Country

This book is an absolute dream.  Willig has crafted an epic set in 1800’s Barbados, in the world of sugar plantations and slaves.  Told in two narrative threads, one in the 1850’s and one in the 1810’s, it’s clear that the two story lines are intertwined – the mystery of the novel is how exactly they are connected other than by the same sugar estates.

In the 1850’s, we meet Emily and her cousin Adam, who has brought Emily and his new wife Laura to start a life on Barbados.  Emily has unexpectedly inherited an estate on the island and she’s eager to see it and try to puzzle out why her beloved grandfather has left it to her and not to her brother.  As fate intervenes, the Davenant family takes Emily and her cousins in, inviting them to stay indefinitely. read more